Activities such as ‘walk the Inca Trail’ and ‘follow the Great Wall of China’ are perennial items on my travel bucket list. But until a few months ago, I had never actually trekked. During our visit to Myanmar in October I decided to change that and incorporate two hikes into our four-week travel itinerary.
This was my first time walking over a long distance from point A to point B, and it was certainly a baptism of fire – or should that be a baptism of mud. Even during the month of October, which is classified as shoulder season in Myanmar and the tail end of the monsoon, the conditions were pretty bleak, especially for our first trek in upper Shan State. For our second trek, the popular Kalaw to Inle Lake route, the conditions were a little more pleasant. Our first trek had a fantastic homestay while trek two afforded us a guide all to ourselves – a rarity and a great gift. Here is my account of trekking in Myanmar’s Shan State with some pros and cons of trekking during shoulder season included.
Trekking In Hsipaw
Torrential downpour is not the sound you want to hear when you wake up early for your first ever trek. Half planning what we would do if our plans were cancelled and we were forced to spend another day in town, we were crestfallen – Hsipaw is a tiny settlement (albeit with a few great markets), but we really wanted to get out into the countryside. To our surprise, everything seemed business as usual. After breakfast at the hotel we tagged and stowed our backpacks and were ushered to wait for our guide. The rain continued to fall outside as another couple from Switzerland joined us in waiting. The hotel staff offered us a thoughtful but slightly ominous care package containing traditional Shan snack foods, sachets of powdered herbal medicine (‘just mix with hot water, it’s for stomach upsets’), and little tubs of good-for-everything medicated balm.
Guided by Jimmy, a young Shan local, the first 10 minutes of our trek took us along Hsipaw’s bitumen roads through the centre of town, past school houses filled with chirping students and a monastery. Monks hung out of the windows to usher us pass. The rain continued to fall. The next part of the walk was a nightmare. In the blink of an eye, the well-trod dirt street transitioned into noxious mud. We entered a rice field, walking single file along the narrow mud rises that divide the fluorescent green carpet, and the warm, red goo started slurping at my ankles almost instantly. Stagnant puddles of rainwater enveloped my feet; my shoes no match for the mud. We wove along the paths for what felt like hours, rice paddies reaching for the hidden sun on either side of us.
After making it out the other end of that endless field, we returned to the safety of the compact dirt and stopped under a tamarind tree for a quick breather. ‘Ten minute break,’ Jimmy announced. ‘Have some water because after this, up and up,’ he added with an sweeping gesture that made us all gape in unison at the mountainside looming on our left.
Next stop was a small village that appeared like an oasis after one of the more strenuous sections of uphill pathway. By this stage I was rain soaked from the waist up and absolutely desperate to sit down with a warm cup of tea. A few foreign faces staring out from the chicken-wired windows of a tea shop belonged to the first tourists we had seen all day. Much to my horror, we trudged right through the village (‘already busy with foreigners’, Jimmy offered by way of explanation). Five minutes later we had reached another, almost identical settlement and found our own private tea house to slump down in. Tiny glasses of steaming tea were distributed and we all sat awkwardly on a wooden bench while the house’s residents carried on with their daily tasks. After someone attempted to re-fill their drink bottle with toddy from a plastic urn (‘ah, that’s not water’, Jimmy warned) we were offered fresh bottles of water to buy.
Up and up and up. Just as the rain became too heavy to go on, a sagging shelter perched on the side of the hill appeared. In my right state of mind I would never have walked inside such a creaky shack, but I needed to escape the freezing downpour. ‘Is it tea?’ someone asked, pointing at a sodden bunch of leaves discarded on the floor. ‘No’, Jimmy replied, and that was that.
The rest of the first day’s walk is a bit of a blur. With only Jimmy’s vague topographic descriptions to map out the rest of the route (‘we go up then up then flat then down then big up up’), I quickly lost track of what direction we were walking in. The mud grew thicker and the rocks more gnarly the further we went. Eventually we stopped and Jimmy cut us each a length of bamboo with his machete. Our makeshift trekking poles made the slippery sections of path slightly more endurable.
Seventeen kilometres later we arrived at the gateway to Pankam Village. The little cobbled streets were bare of people until a school house discharged its pupils and we were greeted by a mob of children. We made a beeline for the undercover of a stilted house where we collapsed onto a set of bamboo deck chairs, heavy with rain water and mud. A little old lady dressed in full Palaung regalia – felted hat, leg wraps and layered embroidered skirts – promptly appeared and began sorting through bundles of washing. Without words, she encouraged us to remove our sodden clothes and swap them for something drier.
Lunch and dinner were both served in the main room of our host family’s three-room house. An open fire, counter-less kitchen and a few beds were all crammed into the multipurpose space. As we ate our first meal, we watched two old women working on their embroidery by an open window. Our hosts cooked us an incredible Shan meal and we enjoyed bottomless cups of green tea. The tea leaves, Jimmy told us, were grown and picked locally, and the sweet brew they made tasted phenomenal.
After a good night’s rest, we met with a second guide who took us back to Hsipaw along a different route. The pathway had dried out overnight, and the walk back into town was much easier. We passed a few small villages and a handful of traders and farmers on their daily commutes – but still no other tourists.
Trekking From Kalaw to Inle Lake
The landscape outside Kalaw in the lower part of Shan State was dramatically different to what we had seen outside Hsipaw. Only a few weeks had passed – just long enough for our shoes to dry out and our bruises to heal – but the land was already transforming with the change of season. Once verdant rice and tea fields were turning into yellow and brown crumble. In the absence of rain, the blazing sun was taking its toll on the land, turning the rich, red soil into parched, creased pathways.
This trek is better told in pictures since my recollection of events is now completed jumbled. One thing I remember distinctly is the view over Kalaw as we walked out of the town – and the thought that came to my mind, ‘there’s no turning back now’.
Our guide, Ming Ming, set a good pace for our second trek and walking without the distraction of lapping mud or stinging rain made it much easier to engage with the landscape. We also noticed more signs of life on this route – farmers tending their fields, tarpaulins newly strung over piles of fresh-picked tea leaves, corn drying in the sun, inhabited huts peeking out of a sea of green.
Highlights of our second trek included our first lunch break at a popular tourist restaurant, jumping off the tracks as a passenger train lumbered past, and mounting many, many steep rises to see tin-topped villages glistening on the horizon.
Rising early each morning was Ming Ming’s idea – and an excellent one at that. On our final day, we rose to mist-covered cabbage fields and grazing buffalo. Being exposed to the details of everyday life in the villages was the highlight of our trek. The walk was no less painful – and the roasting sun was at times much tougher to bare than the rain – but the reward of arriving at Inle Lake on foot made it all feel worth it.
Trekking During Shoulder Season
• There are far fewer tourists around. For the popular Kalaw trek, we had our guide, Ming Ming, all to ourselves, which was a massive luxury. We could set our own pace, break whenever we wanted, and sleep to our own schedule. I’ve heard horror stories of 100 tourists crammed into the monastery for the night, but not us – we had a little bungalow all to ourselves. There are also less people on the path throughout the day, which makes the walk seem more peaceful.
• The landscape is verdant. As long as the rain is falling, the fields and hills take on brilliant shades of green.
• The rain can be a pleasant relief. A light spritz of rainfall every now and then is refreshing, especially if you’re trekking through open fields under a blazing sun all day.
• The homestays are snugly. Sitting by an open fire sipping a hot cup of sugary tea is one of my fondest trekking memories. Hunkering down for the night in a warm house gave me a new appreciation for shelter and made the day’s walk seem worth it.
• The rain washes you off, so you don’t have to take a bucket shower. I still took a few bucket showers (and really enjoyed them), but the less sweaty and sticky you feel at the end of the day, the more time you have for sipping tea at your homestay.
• There are far fewer tourists around. This is also a con. Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake with Ming Ming’s undivided attention was a privilege we had to pay more for. I’m not sure how other companies work it out, but in the case of Ever Smile, the smaller the group, the more each person has to pay to make the trip financially worth it for the guide. We didn’t mind paying extra, but the trek did break our budget. It would have been nice to have another couple with us to lower the price.
• The terrain is tough going. This is especially true of our first trek in Hsipaw. The mud was slippery and I nearly lost it a few times. On the second day, the ground had dried out and it was much easier to manage. This would bother experienced trekkers a lot less, but for a while there, I was starring at my feet for fear of falling over and missing the beautiful scenery!
• Things get wet. Bring a waterproof bag if you want to keep your clothes from being saturated. We didn’t think to do this, and so ended up borrowing some sleeping clothes from our homestay family.
Jumping in the dugout at the end of our second trek, the first words that came out of my mouth were something like, ‘Well, I’ll never be doing that again’. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily still true. The blisters have healed, the dirt has washed off (although my toenails are still stained from the red mud in Hsipaw), and for the most part all that’s left are happy memories of home-cooked meals and collapsing exhausted onto a pile of filthy but oh-so-snugly Chinese blankets. The greatest travel experiences are often the things that challenge you, and trekking in Myanmar definitely forced me to widen my comfort zone. Even now when I’m exercising or walking out in the sun, I still think to myself, ‘Hey, I did that, so I can definitely do this’. I’ll never forget the physical pain but in the end, I did something I would never have thought I could do – actually, I did it twice. Have you trekked in Myanmar? What time of year did you go, and how do you think it compared?